From muskies to bull redfish, autumn is a fine time to grab a rod and go fishing
It’s a great time of year to be on the water. With cooling temperatures come great angling opportunities everywhere we look. In the far North, many fish strap on the feedbag and prepare for winter. Farther south, a welcomed cool-down means greater activity for everything that swims. We can’t go wrong in October.
Sometimes, there are just too many choices. Through a lifetime in fishing, I’ve sampled many of the best autumn bites east of the Mississippi. And while they all burned a place in my memory, a few choice bites just couldn’t be beat. I’ll need to diversify here, so not all of these fishing opportunities will appeal to everyone. But rest assured, if the list includes a body of water in your area, it’s time to grab a rod.
Muskies of the North
When I was a kid, October marked two things: the beginning of deer season and muskies. While the toothy predators were fair game year ‘round, our best shot at these mythical beasts was always in October. Out of nowhere, muskies would begin showing up on our favorite bass and perch spots, likely in search of the same meals that we were.
Muskies represent the homerun of freshwater angling in the north. They’re the blue marlin of inland lakes from Wisconsin to New York. And they’re at their most active in autumn.
Fishing techniques vary. Casting massive bucktails and rubber baits can be productive, as can the old-school Suick slash bait. Topwaters have a short widow of appeal, but may produce the best strike of your life. For my money, though, nothing says October musky like live bait. When we were kids, friends and I would catch creek chubs and suckers, saving the biggest baits for “Lunge fishing” as the old New Yorkers called it. Most often live baiting was done at night but, as waters cool, your shot at a trophy is just as good during the day.
As a bonus, gigantic, crazed smallmouths aren’t shy about hitting musky lures.
The lakes of western New York, like Lake Chautauqua of musky fame, held giant fish. Today, big waters top the list of destinations. A musky pilgrimage will take you to Lake Of the Woods, Green and Sturgeon Bays, and the Detroit River, where angling opportunities last as late as December. For a smaller, hometown feel, hundreds of lakes in Minnesota still have muskies lurking. If you’ve ever wanted to tangle with “the Great Fish,” the native term from which the name ‘muskellunge” is derived, autumn is the time of year to get your fix. As a bonus, gigantic, crazed smallmouths aren’t shy about hitting musky lures.
Here’s an inshore opportunity for those within reach of the coast. Redfish of any size are great sport fish; capable of hard, digging runs, and tremendous stamina. But autumn kicks it up a notch, with a shot at redfish so big, you’ll question your tackle.
Throughout eastern Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, fall brings access to the biggest breeding females, mistakenly referred to as “bulls” instead of cows, but the grammar doesn’t matter. These ocean-bound leviathans come inshore to feed and breed, where they intersect with the lines of anglers hoping to tangle with the fish of a lifetime. Thirty-pound reds are common.
First, you’ll need to find a productive area. Venice, Louisiana, is famous for redfish year ‘round, but fall brings a special time all its own. The eastern ports of Florida, specifically Ponce Inlet, have anglers stacked all day near the jetties. Usually, one is on to a fish every time you look. Nearly the entire Gulf shoreline of Texas is redfish crazy in fall, too. There, surf casters do the most damage, with more and more kayakers now joining the fun. Regardless of your chosen fishing hole, look for water movement through a pass or inlet to be key.
Every local has a favorite bait but — take it from me — nothing beats a large chunk of blue crab. Reds will readily take other smelly offerings, too, with ladyfish chunks and shrimp accounting for a number of fish. Artificials can be fun and productive. But the big mommas want crabmeat. Crafty guides will set a heavy-handed rod in a holder, baited with a half of a crab, and always take the biggest fish of the day on that setup.
One special note here: it’s vitally important to catch and immediately release these big, breeder fish. This is a photo-op only fishery, with all states enforcing a strict release policy of giant fish. But as a bonus, tasty cobia occasionally join the party.
Sure, other states lay claim as smallmouth meccas. New York comes to mind. But for my money, nothing beats Pure Michigan. Lake St. Clair is reason enough to travel to the Wolverine State this fall. Add to it the gigantic possibilities all across Lake Erie, toss in some Grand Traverse and Saginaw Bays, and add a shot of land-locked Burt and Houghton Lakes, and we have a recipe for the biggest smallmouth of your life.
Smallmouths come alive in October. The cool-down forces a rush of forage and the need to bulk up. Correspondingly, this is when fish are the heaviest, making it your best chance of the year for a 6-pounder.
Sticking to your normal smallmouth game plan — drop-shots and tube jigs — will work. But the best bait is “The Buddy.” Metal blade baits, often simply referred to as “Silver Buddies” after the famous lure of yesteryear, have been catching smallmouth bass since the ‘50s, and still hold their own as one of the best lures for fall fishing. A seemingly simple approach, blade baits seem to have a special appeal to cold-water bronze backs. You’ll find many localized versions in the tackle shops along your Michigan smallmouth pilgrimage.
One final note: smallmouth bass can school in extremely dense numbers in late fall. Keep looking; it’s sometimes a small spot. And for your bonus, walleyes mix in the same areas and make for a fine fish fry.
Disclaimer: here’s one bite I’ve not personally taken advantage of. But gosh, I’d love to. I’ve been reading about the fall striper run forever. From Maine to New Jersey, including areas surrounding Boston, Cape Cod, and Long Island, waters come alive each autumn with sounds of fish exploding on bait and drags screaming. The fall blitz is on.
Daytime and nighttime. From boats and beaches. Hearty East Coast anglers brave the deteriorating elements to take part in the fall tradition and get one more fishing fix. Often it’s the best of the year.
Stripers are known to blast topwater plugs, adding to the appeal. Every beach seems to have a different forage fish; bunker and herring, mackerel, and anchovies all make up the protein-rich mix. At times, the best option is using old-school sand eels as bait. How cool is that?
The timing of the blitz can be followed, somewhat, with northern ports going off in September, and opportunities on the Jersey shore sometimes lasting through Thanksgiving. In theory, a hard-core striper angler could follow their own road to glory each fall.
One downside of this fishery has always been the booms and crashes experienced due to overfishing, poor commercial regulation and changing ocean conditions, Lately, it’s been on the upswing, with more 40-plus pounders present than in years. Get in on it now. Your bonus? Tackle-eating bluefish liven things up when the stripers go on walk-about.
Here’s the catch-and keep fishery for the rest of us. With millions of anglers having access to waters teeming with yellow perch, now is the time to put a few bags in the freezer. Perch fishing continues to be a fall tradition all over the North, with the Great Lakes stealing the show. As a kid, I’d join my grandparents as we headed to “the pack,” where hundreds of anglers sit over gigantic schools of Lake Erie gold, attempting to harvest 50 apiece. Later, yellow perch again crowded my radar, as ice fishing became an addiction. Friends and family members at my world-famous — or at least locally famous — fish frys were the beneficiaries.
Fall brings perch together, making them easier to find and quicker to harvest. Minnow rigs are a traditional favorite, but don’t discount small chrome spoons or even panfish plastics in shallower water.
All the Great Lakes have perch, with numbers being highest in Erie and lowest in Ontario. And every major port has a bait shop that keeps anglers in the know. The key in fall is to keep moving until you find the fish. As stated earlier, this is one time when it’s often advantageous to check out the other boats on the lake. Perching is a community affair, so you shouldn’t receive too many dirty looks.
For a real taste of perch and perching, head to Vermillion, Ohio. Locals there have perch fished for over a hundred years, and still do it the same way they always did, with a multi-hook rig of emerald shiners. Double-headers of fish weighing a pound apiece are often commonplace. For true trophies, check out the fisheries of southern Lake Michigan, where 16-inchers come to the net.
And as a bonus, anytime you’re perch fishing on the Great Lakes, you’re within a short boat-ride to the biggest smallmouth bass in the world.
There you have it, my list of fall’s best bites. Sure, there’s dozen more to talk about it — and you likely have your own. If you don’t, it may be time for a road trip. October is always too short.